Indicators for Future Success in Cycling: Success at Youth Level Versus Success at Elite Level

As a coach I encounter many youth riders with aspirations to progress to be a professional cyclist. I also meet parents who have the same aspirations for their son or daughter. This is common among all sports at youth level, many youth athletes aspire to reach the level they see their heroes compete at on TV.

In youth cycling it is common to see riders who are a long way ahead of their peers. Some youth riders win week in week out while some riders struggle to finish races or get a top 10 finish. Yet fast forward a couple of years and this can often be the opposite. With some of the riders who struggled to finish races or fight for the top 5 or 10 positions often developing to be world class or at least elite national level riders. Quite often the reason there is such a huge gap in performance levels as a youth rider is due to 2 things; Training age and Maturity (Physical Development).

In sports which involve more 'physical contact' it is evident which players are more developed physically along with the players who have greater skill. This most often at ages from U16 level and under is down to both areas mentioned above, Training age and Maturity.

In youth cycling, Training age is important and a big reason why there can be a wider gap between performances at underage level compared to junior or senior level. Many parents and youth riders themselves will become discouraged if they see their son or daughter being a long way off the pace or not fighting for results on a regular basis. An U16 youth rider with a training age of 5 has a greater advantage than an U16 rider with a training age of 2. What is training age ? Training age purely refers to the total training time or experience the cyclist has in training and/or competition. At U16 level the training age of a youth rider is a lot more important than it is at elite level or senior level. Why ? Because at senior level age is no longer a factor is many cases. Riders at senior level 'catch up' in their development on their peers with a greater training age and the playing field (or the road you could say in this case!) often becomes less important as the rider catches up and gets more training years under their belt.

That is why, in the heat of the moment at the side of the road when a parent is watching their son or daughter race and become disappointed that they are not 'winning or placing', it is vital they give the rider time to develop. Also realising sometimes there is nothing they can do only let their son or daughter develop over time and eventually reach a competitive level. The worst thing that can happen is the youth rider being put under more pressure to perform. This is counter productive as the youth rider is more than likely already putting in their best performance as physically possible. Therefore putting the youth rider under more pressure or expecting more from them in comparison to their peers who have a higher training age is detrimental to not only the young riders career but also their enjoyment for the sport.

Like every sport, you will have young athletes who are exceptional until 17 or 18 years of age and then fade away due to burnout or developing other interests. This might mean taking year or two away from the sport and returning to be successful at elite level. However, in many cases they will quit the sport for good or take an extended break and return in their leisure years.

Cycling, unlike football, is not a sport where you must possess world class ability from the ages of 8-16 in order to become a successful professional cyclist or even successful at national level. There are many interesting research studies which show how successful cyclists at elite level did not achieve success at youth level. There are also evidences of many successful youth riders who won many races at youth level and progressed to do the same at professional level. However, there are far less examples of this in comparison to cyclists who were 'average' at youth level before developing into top professional riders.

Above we have Mikkel Frølich Honoré who dominated at underage level (pictured winning Ras Dhun na nGall 3 Day) and also pictured progressing onto winning a stage of the Tour of the Basque Country as a professional cyclist with Quickstep - Alphavinyl.

Managing a highly achieving young cyclists lifestyle is important in order to continue their development. Keeping a balanced approach to life until their late teens in essential so they do not become burnt out from the stresses of the sport.

In a study 'The importance of performance in youth competitions as an indicator of future success in cycling' by Mostaert et al (2021), it was shown that the competitive success rate of U15 cyclists could not predict success at adult age. Importantly, from U17 onwards future achievers had higher success rates, and success rate had some predictive value for performance at senior elite level. As well as that, competitive performance is influenced by relative age effect in the U15 category, however, this effect disappeared as the athlete progressed into older age categories. Finally, future non-achievers experience a significant decrease in success rate when transitioning to a new competition category. It is worth reading this study above in depth to see the varying levels of indicators between both youth and elite level and the transition between youth cycling and elite cycling.

There are also far more important factors in a riders progression to a successful senior career. These include the athletes mental strength, environment, career goals and physical attributes to name a few. This is for another post but the take away from here is for parents and youth riders not to become so performance focused from U16 and under. Remember .... Pressure is for tyres. Underage cycling success does often not translate to success at elite level. Look at the many riders names who won as an U16 over the years, they often quit the sport in their early u23 years. Only very few continue on that path and if they do it is due to top class development from their club/team and coaches assisting them. Take each training ride and race as it comes and enjoy the sport as a youth rider. There's plenty of time to take it seriously!

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